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July 11th, 2011
China Prep

“Interesting and thought-provoking….
It also might make you a little uneasy, which is an even better reason to watch….
Focused, fast-moving and compelling”
–New York Daily News

As the world’s attention turns to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, WIDE ANGLE reports on how the next generation of Chinese leaders is being molded.

China Prep follows five Chinese students through their final high-pressure year at an elite high school in Sichuan Province. Eighteen hundred students vie for spots in Beijing’s top two universities. Last year only 59 made it.

Studying seven days a week, the students’ lives are regimented almost every minute of the day as they prepare for the end-of-year exam that can determine their fate. For many students from poor or rural backgrounds, a strong performance on the test is the only way to climb the social ladder and excel without connections. Competition is fierce and the majority of high school seniors will be relegated to vocational schools.

We meet Zhang Lie, who wants to study law and become a Communist Party member like her father; Mei Jiachin, a genius mathematician from a farming family; Chen Zhibo, a misfit science student with big plans to become China’s Bill Gates; and Gao Mengjia, a dedicated student who loves money and aspires to be a hedge fund manager.

Nicknamed the “I want” generation by the Chinese press, these only children – the sole focus of their parents’ and grandparents’ nurturing under China’s one-child policy – will be the new class of corporate managers, lawyers, and civil servants who are expected to propel 21st century China to surpass the United States as the largest economy in the world.

How do the ambitions of these teenagers reflect the realities of today and tomorrow’s China? Who among them will be most likely to succeed – the daughter of the Party official or the farmer’s son? Who will be the boss?

  • Frank G. Stoeffler

    As a Special Education Teacher always looking for items that will help my kids learn. This presentation taught me so much. If I learned, know my students will. Going to get permission to include within a Social Studies block of instruction. I am an ole retired military instructor and have only been teaching in the “civilian system” for ten years. Being “ole folks” and somewhat jaded, if I got excited (lol)trust me, it will light your afterburners. A must see!!!!!!!!!

  • Daniel McElligott

    I could not agree more with the comments made by your guest at the end of the show. As is the case in China, the Irish also have a final “leaving cert” exam, and though the pressure is fierce on a teenager, it is the great leveler; the status (wealth) of ones family does not play as significant a part in the final equation. Also the Irish system is more homogeneous, regardless of what part of the country one is from, it is the exact same set of tests (eliminating the need for interpretation) and the financial allocation is, more or less, evenly spread.
    I now live in the States and have a 2 year old. Like all parents, a major concern is the education he will get (a significant variable is the funding for the school, which is, partly dependent on the wealth of the community to pay local taxes i.e. wealthy school districts equals more money plus kids of wealthy parents are friends with kids of wealthy parents (almost like public schools in the UK). I realise things are not so simple, but I cannot understand why the American system does not adopt a more standard system. It seems this would reduce the admin required and make it more transparent (and I believe more competitive). There is no shadow of a doubt that the American culture of Entrepreneurship exists, but this can only mask, the desperate need for a culture to place more respect on the value of education within its society, for so long.

  • Yoel Cohen

    It is no surprise that China with 1.2 billion people did not produce as many inventions for the past 5000 years as United States did in the last 250 years.
    Their education system does not allow free thinking or thinking out of the box, it is rigid and memorizing material. China recent economic success comes from cheap labor and time will tell that will not be enough to sustain growth for long time.
    The professor from Harvard which was interviewed, after the programed aired, think that the Chinese system is good one,Bill Gates never will hire her to work in his organization.By the way my son was a late bloomer and he is now a Medical doctor.

  • John T. Linton, MBA

    China Prep should be mandatory “Must See” for every teacher in Louisiana, and I mean every teacher at every grade level.
    All American teachers and parents should see this series.
    Parents had better wake up to the enormity of the effect (approx. 150 Million) Chinese children today (at the age of fourteen) will have on the world intellectual market after they graduate from college in the year 2017.
    This program should be scheduled at least once every month.

  • Jason, PhD

    This was an interesting program and I think that many students here should watch this and hopefully gain some insight as to what other countries are doing to develop their students at such early age.
    But one thing that this program fails to do is what happens next. In my many years of research I found that many Asian countries such as China, South Korea and Japan, it is very tough, if not just about impossible to get into a good University. But once you’re in, just about everyone graduates with minimal studies and as long as you show up for the lectures and do your homework. That’s the way it goes. Here in the U.S., however, getting into a University can be tough but not impossible. The toughest part is graduating from it…

  • Nancy Stansbury

    I would love to be able to show China Prep to my middle school students. Is it available to purhase?
    I posted this email from my home computer, but I can also be reached at
    Thank you,
    Nancy Stansbury
    Manhattan Beach Middle School
    1200 Redondo Avenue
    Manhattan Beach, Ca. 90266
    (310) 379-2359

  • Dan Hampton

    As a community college adjunct instructor of Sociology I am continually amazed at not only the diversity of cultural patterns but the societal pressure and emphasis placed upon age and gender roles. For China, it is moving a small snowball, ever enlarging, of its youth to educationally exceed the ‘west’. It has been known for years that China has the potential to be the next world superpower, and they are not alone in that quest. Education is a primary path towards that goal.

  • John T. Linton, MBA

    RE: My earlier comment.
    Referring to my statement that there are approx. 150 million children at the age of fourteen in China today, one must realize not all of those children will go to College. If only 10% go to college (15 million students) and 5% of those college students ( 750,000) go on to Graduate School, and 2% of those graduate students go on to Ph.D. programs (37,500),it is conceivable to believe that China will overtake the West intellectually sometime after the year 2020.
    The United States government and its citizens must prepare our children “now” to meet this challenge.

  • Robert Moraes

    If these new leaders do not correct China’s record on human rights, then nothing new will be gained.

  • jerry r mitchell

    I would love to purchase this to show my grndkids

  • Tatiana Davis

    Sorry for my English if you see any mistakes. I’m 52 years Ukrainian who live in US 12 yrs and US citizen since 2000. It’s very hard to make a comment to such amaizing programm. Thank you very much for making it. I wish all American would be able to see it. I’d do it mandatory for all schools, and for all parents also. I only would like to say this – when children are very poor and abused, they become an angry adults. When children have all they need and tons more- they become indeferent. There are a thin line in beetwen, I call it a Balance. I saw a great desire to study, to learn, to succeed in life, to break through. And doing it all in very prudent conditions. Sorry to say, but I dont see such desire to learn in American schools.This is a very deep concern and I don’t see it will be address any time soon. I fear instead some people would use all available energy to attack someone who trying to speak common sence.This is very unfortunate, as facts will stay the same,even if you try to ignore them. US kids is not prepare to compete with Chinese kids at all. Yes, I agree, in free market society imagination works much better( only if you have a desire for imagination). I think we are witness a historical breakthrough a whole country of China. Their hard work and desire so great, that some 10-20 years from now no one will be able to compete.My granddaughter is 11 yrs old, and although she is very good student in Ukrainian school now, I don’t see she is ready to compete also.Here we are getting into another deep point- are we really need to full forward so fast? Looking at Japan now, you can only work hard and study hard so much. If your life will become robot like, what the point of that life at all?! As you see, If China will push own people over the limit, then another countries will do the same, what a World we are going to live?? How many T-shirts we need, or new cars, or new mobile phone or ipods? World will be devided on countries who are so ahead and countries who are so behind, like some in African continent, or tribes in Amazonia.Hard to say who is winner and looser here. Who is going to stop and smell roses? And if we will have roses at all or no one will care anymore?!Sorry for so many questions in my comment. The only one thing for sure- we can’t stop China now. Aducational system in place, desire is there. Watch it.Prepare yourself.If you can.I just LOVE PBS!!!

  • Kathleen Maciuszko

    I would like to buy a copy of this one. Is it availbable for sale? I am giving a presentation soon on the schools in China. I visited them this past summer. Thanks Kathleen. If not, can this be downloaded somehow so I could use portions with my talk?

  • Alan Wang

    “You got off easy.” This was the comment I got from some students who took GAOKAO 5 years before I did, and this is what I would like to give to the recent Gaokao-exam-takers. Really, although the number of exam-takers gets larger, the level of difficulty of the curricula is getting lower and lower every year, while the acceptance rate is getting higher and higher. For instance, some ridiculously difficult mathematical proofs in 9th grade geometry were dropped off since I took them; calculus was no longer required in high school; physics and chemistry are now mixed to one exam; the section of ancient Chinese literature is greatly pruned; even 12th grade maths is getting easier.

    Like every high school student who was forged in the Gaokao system, I hate Gaokao. I;m still getting nightmares, almost 10 years after the exam. And I know the one-exam-determining-fate strategy is not the best. However, the people who were tested in that vigorous process have advantages in international competitions. Not just in knowledge, but also in character and willpower.

    Not everyone can voluntarily endure suffocating boredom and suffering to study for a dream of bright future, which is usually forced upon by the loving others, like parents. In today’s world, when selfishness and ignorance are revered as virtues, we really need to preserve Gaokao, even if it can be categorized as cruel and unusual punishment.

  • Alan Wang

    To the director and the producer:

    Because of the cultural and social differences between China and the US, I don’t think the documentary itself is self-explanatory to most American audiences. I have the following questions after watching the documentary.

    1) Why?
    Why do so many youngsters spend years in this cruel and tedious process? Some fragments answered this question, indirectly. Some consequences of alternative routes, like working as a factory labor after high school, might shed some light on it. In a word, the motivation behind studying for Gaokao.

    2) How?
    The method of study. We saw the students were studying in the documentary, but we didn’t know what exactly what they were doing. American audiences might not able to comprehend the Chinese-exam-perpetration style. I remember when I was preparing for GAOKAO, we had mocking tests every another day for almost a year.

    3) Cultural differences
    Studying for the others, though reluctantly, while bearing the burden of the whole family, is acceptable and deemed normal in Chinese culture. The same thing might be considered as being in violation of personal freedom and rights. Some background information might be helpful.

    4) Payoff

    Did the effort and time pay off? I’m not referring to the results of GAOKAO, rather where the college-education road leads later in life.

    How large is the living standard gap between college graduates and the others, if any?

    Do the people who went through this rigorous filtering process, including those from Korea, Japan etc, have advantages in global competition?

    5) Under the tables.

    Literally. The girl (Peng Kun, Part5, 04:00) said it right, the students had to somehow entertain themselves and seek their own way to study in this year-long torture. When I was in high school, I taught myself physics in maths classes, English in Chinese classes, since I found the teachers’ teaching style didn’t suit me. And the political/patriotism education class was the unofficial “game” class for all students, since no one believed in communist ideals any longer, even the teachers.

    My classmates and I, in the year preparing for GAOKAO, played chess by drawing chess boards and pieces on tables, played cards by making cards from scratch paper, drawing comics on notebooks and reading novels with textbooks as camouflage, even made sculptures out off mashed test papers …..

    Chinese teenagers are still teenagers. I’m sure the students today had invented more ways to have fun, to keep them sane.

    6) Some politics

    With this “all Chinese are brain-washed by communist propaganda” theory from the right and the left of the West, especially in recent months, I’d really like to hear the younger generation’s thoughts regarding communism and democracy.

    It is hard to believe that how most Chinese students, who can solve high-order equations and only pay lip-service to political education, can be “brain washed”, while rational and critical thinking is essential to crack high scores in Gaokao.
    I thought that my generation, born after the economic reform, is the most open-minded, rational and pragmatic in the world. We don’t fall in love for any ideology without doubts, no matter communism or western democracy. (hmmm… since I was brain-washed by propaganda, my opinions don’t count, I guess)

    Overall, this is a wonderful documentary. I’m looking forward to the sequel. Thanks

  • Xing Ying

    I found this documentary, “China Prep” compelling. Watching it with my daughter, who has just completed her college application process, gave me a lot of food for thought.

    In my opinion elite higher education and its role in providing social mobility is, curiously, more similar than different across the world.

    As a Chinese-American parent, it has been my wish to raise my child to be culturally sensitive and linguistically competent in any setting, but especially navigating the complex world of East-West divide.

    After viewing this film with my daughter, who has been a student in China and in the States, we both agreed that the most visible difference between U.S. and China is the relationship between student-teacher-parent.

    In the States, there is a definite cultural preference for independence and self-discovery in schools that seems not as prominent in China. However, there is a cultural heritage of respect and deference to the teacher that seems to prevail in China that educators in the States yearn for.

    I hope in the global era, we do not make education the battleground, but the common ground from which parents, teachers and students can all work together to build a better world and to become better people.

    The great Renaissance humanist, Euremas once wrote – “the best society is the one that educates its young.”

    The great Chinese philospher, Confucius once wrote – “the good student is the person who learns from everyone s/he meets.”

  • J.L.

    I agree with Jason. The Higher Education system in the United States is much better than the primary and secondary one. We are also better than the East Asian College Systems. I think the primary reason for that is the *individual* students are held accountable for their own performances — if you don’t make the grades you are out. So the lesson here is that accountability works and competition works.

    I think the Chinese case is extreme in that it over-emphasizes the results of two entrance exams (because of the limited educational resource available to a poor country with 1.2 billion people all wanting to go to college. They *have to* ration it). And the failings of American education system are that the students are not held to any meaningful academic standards from K-12 and academic excellence is not encourage as much as it should by society. It would be the best to introduce a system that holds the students responsible, not just the teachers and the parents, but the students themselves for their own successes.

    Generally speaking, I get the sense of a old man who is “fat and lazy” watching young people who are “lean and hungry”. Inspires me to work a little harder and appreciate what I have. But it also scares me just a little knowing that they will be entering the work force in 4-years :)

  • NG14916

    Asian-Americans, including Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans, in the U.S. go through some of the same stuff. We don’t have as rigorous of an education system here in the U.S. as there is in China, but Asian kids here are also under a lot of pressure to do well in school. In my school district Asian kids consistently beat out most white kids due to this pressure. It might not be fun, but we tend to do better in life.

  • michael shen

    to Yoel Cohen:

    The American Education system is what is deemed as a “Elite” system. While Bill gates and his enterprise might be someone/something the Americans hold on a banner for display of its success, it begs people to see the totality of the situation: Elites are meant to be FEW in numbers. I think the reason you can say the American Education System is better is because the infrastructure of this country can afford to do that. and just like what the Professor said in the vedio, Chinese young adults, especially those who made it to the top universities are not in a “zero-sum” game with the Americans. America being an immigrant country it adopts a large portion of its elites from other parts of the world, therefore, this competition does not really exist (for now). China’s infrastructure is not nearly as solid as that of the USA’s, therefore there is a need for a systematic push for higher quality of the average workforce. the amount of the knowledge an average high school diploma holder in the U.S. has is so little compared to one from China, so much so if one is to know reality of the matter such comparison would only deem ridiculous. yet a huge portion of the American workforce is able to lead a good life while an “average” high school graduate in China is a person labeled as without a future.

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  • Zhong Xiang

    This documentary is amazing, and very touching. It reminds me of my own Gaokao 8 years ago. And I see through it the hard-working people of my country. While as most people of my generation I don’t like our communist government, I see a nation worth my contribution to make it a better place, and 1.3 billion people who I will devote myself to. Thanks to PBS.

  • Charlie

    The second sentence: “China’s top high school students cram for ??? decide” What does the word of ??? stands for, I didn’t catch it. Thanks!

  • Wang Bo China

    I am a university student .i just passed the college entrance exam in 2010.
    well ,i did not too bad .And entered quite a top college .that`s to say ,i just experienced the life in the video .
    i must say ,what is said and described in the video is the fact in china .it was the fact and ,in my opinion ,it will be in several years in china .
    the life in high school is really tough and terrible .after seeing this ,as if i came back to the days half a year ago .

    but ,i have to say ,the video overstated some of the competition in the exam .we students were not so utilitarian.there were still many wonderful memories during that time .life was not so miserable .

    life in the college is really different .it`s more free and joyful .but the lazy life really make worried .i worried that we will fall behind other coutries` universities students .

    finally ,i hope something can be do to the exam .something can be changed in the future .our pressure can be relieved .
    i believe our government will change all this !

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